AUSTIN (KXAN) — The two Democrats vying for an opportunity to unseat U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, stepped onto the debate stage Saturday evening.
The Nexstar Media Group debate between M.J. Hegar and Texas State Sen. Royce West began at 6 p.m. at the KXAN studios in Austin. It was their only scheduled face-to-face meeting ahead of the July 14 runoff election, and the topics they discussed ranged from police brutality and protests, to coronavirus response, decriminalization of marijuana and fracking.
Hegar, an Air Force veteran, garnered 22% of votes in the March Democratic Primary, while West picked up 14%. The winner of the runoff election will face Sen. Cornyn in November. Cornyn has represented Texas in Washington, D.C. since 2002 and is a three-term incumbent. Throughout the debate, his campaign tweeted responses.
KXAN-TV news anchors Sally Hernandez and Robert Hadlock, as well as Dallas Morning News political writer Gromer Jeffers Jr., moderated the hour-long debate and posed questions to the candidates collected from viewers around Texas.
Police brutality and protests
“We don’t have a few poisoned apples — we have a plague of locusts that have come through the orchard,” Hegar said in response to a question about how she would end police brutality.
She said it’s essential to have leaders who can legislate effectively to fix problems within the system, partnered with reform-minded law enforcement leaders to make changes. She also supported standards related to body cameras and releasing video from them.
West said he wanted a uniform definition of deadly force across the nation that all states adopt. He also said officers found guilty of murder as a result of race should also fall under hate crime laws and have enhanced punishments.
Earlier this week, Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted, “Every police department violating people’s civil rights must be stripped of federal funding.”
Both Hegar and West said they’d consider that as an option. West said he wasn’t for stripping funding because of a single incident, but if that incident did not lead to reforms, then it would be appropriate to consider withholding funding.
Hegar, as a veteran, sympathized with the need to use deadly force in certain situations, but wanted standards for police to be much higher, like those she had when she was in the military.
Some of the protests across the country against police brutality have devolved into looting and violence. When asked if those were about opportunism, West agreed, but Hegar said it was more than that — “anger at a system that has absolutely been oppressing” people. She vowed to go to Washington, D.C. and make sure the government doesn’t oppress its citizens and take away their First Amendment rights.
She said she didn’t support looting, but that “when you’re militarizing the police force, you’re not doing any favors,” and people will naturally respond as if they are at war.
West said it’s important that these acts of violence at protests don’t take away from the message of the mostly peaceful protesters who are calling out racial injustice, and he called for people to keep that focus.
“We’re finally getting to the point where we can harness that energy in order to effectuate change,” he said.
The coronavirus pandemic and healthcare
Some Republicans have called for sanctions against China and want an investigation into how its government handled the coronavirus outbreak in its early days. West and Hegar were asked, “how important is it for the U.S. to hold China accountable?”
Hegar said it’s important to understand the technicalities behind the response, and emphasized that it’s important that China not fill the “vacuum of leadership” left by the United States.
“As we withdraw world influence, we are damaging our position as a global superpower,” she said.
West agreed it’s important to hold “all foreign countries accountable that do harm to national security,” and supported the idea of sanctions against China.
Congress already approved a $3 trillion stimulus to help people and businesses struggling because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. When asked if they’d support another stimulus, both agreed.
Hegar said she is “for anything that is going to help our economy as long as it keeps people safe,” mentioning her concern that reopening could cause more damage for small businesses if it causes a second wave of infections.
West said more testing is important, and that essential workers should get bonuses.
When asked about paying for such a stimulus, Hegar said she wanted to make sure everyone pays their fair share. She did not want to raise taxes on the middle class and wanted to make sure corporations pay more than they are now.
West also wanted to make sure corporations don’t get such big tax breaks and try to put that money back into the system. He also supported raising taxes for those with $1 million or more net worth.
The coronavirus crisis led many to lose their jobs and health insurance, which prompted a question about what changes the healthcare system needs to make sure everyone is covered.
Both West and Hegar said Gov. Greg Abbott should accept Medicaid expansion in the state.
West also echoed some of the promises of the original Affordable Care Act and called to fix the current legislation to ensure preexisting conditions are covered and that people can keep their current plans. He said people who lost their healthcare because of the coronavirus should be able get ACA coverage.
“Healthcare should be a fundamental right to every person in this country,” West said.
Hegar acknowledged, “We have a broken healthcare system and it’s particularly bad in Texas,” and said she was frustrated by lawmakers who shoot down solutions like the ACA without a replacement plan. She said anti-abortion versus pro-choice politics here had led to shutdowns of Planned Parenthood clinics that provided other kinds of care within the community.
She said she was pro-choice, both for what people want to do with their bodies and what insurance they want to use.
Cornyn’s campaign claimed in a tweet “Obamacare has left many families paying far more for health care than they did before. Its taken away their freedom to choose their doctor or health plan they want.” It said Cornyn supported replacing the ACA with a system that “protects those with preexisting conditions, owes the cost of prescription drugs by increasing generics, increases competition by allowing cross-state health insurance, lowers out of pocket costs for seniors on Medicare, reestablishes the privacy of the doctor patient relationship.”
Both Hegar and West emphasized the need for comprehensive immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship.
“The problem is in the policies implemented and the leadership,” Hegar said, in response to a question of whether she supports abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She said she would consider getting rid of it, but wants to have the right leadership in place for good policies afterward.
West said he would not approve of getting rid of ICE if Joe Biden were president, but would expect him to scrutinize the agency to see what policies need to be reformed.
Hegar said there is a need to prioritize national security but said the border wall was ineffective and taking away money from military construction. West echoed the sentiment, saying the United States needs security, but not a wall.
When asked if the candidates had ever used marijuana, both raised their hands. “Youthful indiscretion,” West said. Hegar said she didn’t want to comment, but later added “plenty of states have legalized it.”
The question about their personal use came after two questions related to decriminalization of the substance.
West pointed to his previous work in the Texas Senate, filing a bill to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana (which did not pass). He also said he had worked with Dallas’ District Attorney to reduce the number of people being put in jail because of marijuana, saying Texas should “keep jails available for the hardened criminals.” Hegar also supported legalizing marijuana, saying it’s “ineffective to keep marijuana illegal.”
Hegar called for systemic reform in jails, and said people should be released if there were not “violent circumstances in addition” to their marijuana charge. West also called for those whose only offense was marijuana to be set free and for their records to be expunged.
Getting things done in Washington
Although West has experience as a state senator, neither he nor Hegar have worked as lawmakers in Washington, D.C.
West said he’s “readied himself for this particular opportunity,” and said he’s been able to get coalitions together here to work together on issues.
“We need someone in Washington who will take care of Texas values,” West said, calling Cornyn’s leadership in Texas “hollow” and saying he “frankly followed Donald Trump off the cliff.”
Hegar said she’s had experience in Washington D.C. advocating for a change in military policy that barred her and other injured women from competing for ground combat position, which came about because of the ability to build a broad coalition.
“I’m here to tell you, once transparency and accountability is introduced and once you’re able to make the argument to the right and left about what’s good for your country, as long as you’re willing to sacrifice your ego — which not a lot of politicians can do, and not try to grab cameras and not care who gets the credit — you can accomplish great things,” Hegar said.
Both Hegar and West supported term limits for lawmakers: Hegar said she supported two terms in the Senate and four in the House while West supported two terms in both the Senate and House.
Assault-style rifle restrictions
Both candidates have said they support restrictions on assault-style rifles, such as those used in mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa, Texas, but not mandatory gun buyback programs.
Hegar pointed out she was in a unique position to speak on the issue with credibility, because she is a gun owner, had been shot in Afghanistan and had used these “weapons for their intended purpose, which was war, not on our streets here on American soil.”
“We don’t sell other weapons of war to the public,” Hegar said. “We don’t sell RPGs and tanks and C-4 and I don’t understand why — well, I do understand why. It’s because of money and politics and the powerful gun lobby.”
She said she supported solutions that “move the needle on gun violence” but that they have to be “pragmatic and enforceable” and not infringe on people’s rights.
West said he’s encouraged by states such as Virginia, who are banning assault weapons, and that he is in favor of red flag laws.
“I was the first state senator that filed a bill in the legislature in order to to ban assault weapons , universal background checks and also reduce the size of the magazine and also looking at the issue of the bullets,” West said.
He said he supported a voluntary buyback program.
Fracking and climate change
Hegar and West said they supported climate change initiatives, with West saying he wanted to get to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and Hegar saying she supported “aggressive action.” However, neither of them supported the Green New Deal that many Democrats supported.
West said he wanted to examine and understand the different proposals, including the Green New Deal, to get “the best parts of” each legislation and build a coalition of supporters. He also said it was important that people, including many Texans, in industries that would see a hit because of renewable energy would still be able to get jobs.
Hegar said she dug into issues about how to responsibly become more reliant on renewable energy and both said climate change action would need a broad coalition of support.
Cornyn’s campaign tweeted that the Green New Deal would harm Texans, such as those in the oil and gas industry. He said “Texas is the linchpin for American’s energy independence. + We must be good stewards of the earth for future generations. For the adults in the room: The two are not mutually exclusive.”
West said he supported a federal moratorium on fracking, the practice of injecting water into the ground to extract oil and natural gas, to better determine its impact to the environment. He said it would be important to make sure the agency responsible for monitoring fracking had enough funding to do its job.
Reparations for enslaved men and women’s descendants
Hegar and West each said they wanted to see what came of studies and recommendations related to paying reparations to the families of enslaved men and women in the United States, which could cost trillions of dollars. Both cited Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s panel considering reparations proposals as what they would use to help determine their stance.
“Just because it has a large price tag does not mean it’s not worth pursuing,” Hegar said.
West said what they’re able to address would help determine the budget, and that “we don’t have to do it all at one time.”
Free college tuition and student loan forgiveness
“We should change the way we fund education in this country,” said West, saying he supported free college tuition and loan forgiveness. He suggested having taxpayers pay for two more years of school for students, which could be used for college or trade school.
Hegar said there needs to be a change to how student loans are funded, and suggested other ways of having people pay back their education, such as community service work. She also supported unions in their vocational training programs.
When asked about how they would pay for these educational measures, West said prioritizing education in the budget is key and that he believed Joe Biden as president would ensure it became a priority.
Hegar said paying for programs like these “would be easier when we have a strong economy,” where people can earn more and pay more taxes.
“The more tools we can give people to be more successful and pursue the American dream, the stronger our economy and the less our deficit,” Hegar said. “But we need to be making better decisions from DC and we are not making those decisions right now.”
Earning Texans’ votes
It’s been more than 30 years since Texas elected a Democrat to serve in the U.S. Senate. West and Hegar said earning the support of Texans would be key to beating Sen. Cornyn.
Hegar said she would travel the state and work to earn everyone’s vote, then take people’s ideas and struggles to the nation’s capital.
“A third of state is still undecided,” Hegar said. “It’s not a guarantee, but an opportunity.”
West also mentioned traveling the state, and reflected on the current time as “historic,” in which people are “fed up about being fed up.”
“They will come together and they understand that this energy that’s being generated right now will be directed in the right direction in order to have meaningful change, and in order to do that we have to make certain we’re voting,” West said.
Hegar addressed her children in her 30-second closing statement.
I know you heard us talk about a lot of really scary things tonight, but I’m here to tell ya, mommy’s going to do what I taught you to do with bullies. I’m gonna stand up to and beat this person that’s gonna hurt people in Texas and I’m gonna make sure we’re taking better care of people. Now, to John Cornyn, I know that you’re watchinhg. I’ve got bad news for you — this relationship is not working out, honey. I gotta tell ya’ — we’re just not that into you. 37% approval rating — I mean, your approval rating is so low that even Ted Cruz is embarrassed for you.”
West encouraged people to vote and make their voices heard.
Democrats have an opportunity to make history this time around and what we do in this election will have influence over the next 10 years, in terms of issues concerning healthcare, women’s rights, voting rights — all those issues and many more will be impacted in terms of what we do this time around. John Cornyn, I’m coming for ya. The fact of the matter is, is that you’ve gotta make certain that you elect a person as your representative that has a record of bringing people together — that’s Royce West look at all the candidates, Democratic candidates in the state of Texas, that endorse my race, and I ask you humbly ask you to allow me to represent you.”
Cornyn’s campaign sent a statement from the senator in response to the debate.
“At least Radical Royce owned up to his radical agenda to change Texas,” Cornyn wrote in a release. “At some point, Hollywood Hegar will need to tell Texans where she stands on banning fracking, reparations and defunding ICE. Considering her endorsement of Elizabeth Warren, we can only conclude that she supports all of these things but doesn’t want Texans to know.”
Ahead of the debate, State of Texas anchor Josh Hinkle, Nexstar Media Texas Bureau Reporter Wes Rapaport and digital anchor Will DuPree discussed the most important considerations for Hegar and West when it comes to the November election.